EVANSTON, ILL. — Penn State coach Patrick Chambers has emphasized his team’s improved field-goal percentage defense as a sign of the program’s growth.
But often in the same breath, he’s lamented the Nittany Lions’ troubles guarding the 3-point line, a category where they’ve been ranked among the worst in the Big Ten.
Penn State put it all together Thursday night, holding Northwestern to 23.3 percent shooting from the field and 13.6 percent from beyond the arc en route to a dominant 59-32 win at Welsh-Ryan Arena.
“At the end of the year, you're hoping your defense gets to this point,” Chambers said. “If you take away 3s, we're in the top one or two in defensive field goal percentage. We have a better understanding of our rotations. When guys are out there talking and I can hear them talking, that's when you know they're dialed in.”
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It was the fewest points Penn State has ever allowed in a Big Ten game, and the fewest since the Lions held Division-III opponent Juniata to 26 points in 1989. Northwestern’s total was also the fewest points scored in a game by any team in conference play this season.
The Lions’ dominant defensive performance set the tone during a 22-3 run that blew the game open in the first half. Penn State (15-15, 6-11) shot 51.9 percent from the field in the first 20 minutes, while Northwestern (12-18, 5-12) went 6-for-27 (22.2 percent), including 2-for-14 from 3-point range.
Tim Frazier scored 11 points to go with five rebounds and seven assists. D.J. Newbill scored a team-high 12 points, and Brandon Taylor finished with 11 points. Ross Travis added six points and 10 rebounds, and John Johnson finished with eight points as part of a balanced offensive attack.
Northwestern lost its seventh straight game and shot a season-worst 3-for-22 from beyond the arc against Penn State’s 2-3 zone. Alex Olah led the Wildcats with 14 points. Drew Crawford, the team’s leading scorer, was limited to six points on 2-for-9 shooting in his final home game.
“I don't second guess that at all,” Crawford said of his decision to return for a fifth year. “I believe in coach (Chris) Collins. He's been a great mentor to me. My teammates, they're awesome. I love those guys and our coaching staff. I don't question my decision for a second.”
While Northwestern couldn’t find its rhythm, Penn State started to click less than eight minutes into the game.
That’s when Frazier sparked the game’s decisive 22-3 run.
The Penn State point guard found Newbill for a 3 in the left corner before picking up two more assists to Jordan Dickerson and Johnson to open up an eight-point lead.
With Newbill and Frazier on the bench for a quick break, the Nittany Lions continued to roll. Johnson drilled a 3-pointer. On the ensuing possession, Graham Woodward pulled up in transition and knocked down a jumper.
Penn State led by 13. The Lions’ lead grew as large as 20 points before the break.
By halftime, Penn State was up 32-15.
Eight players scored for Penn State in the first half, led by Newbill’s seven points. Frazier had six points and three assists, and forward Donovon Jack had four assists to contribute to the efficient offensive performance.
In the second half, Taylor hit all three of his 3-pointers in the second half to help Penn State expand its lead. The Lions shot 47.6 percent in the final 20 minutes to finish off the blowout win.
But the Lions’ defense was the difference.
“We played extremely well defensively tonight,” Newbill said. “We were really active, had a lot of energy, intensity. We were just making the right reads.”
Northwestern went 4-for-16 from the field and 1-for-8 from long range in the second half.
Wildcats guard Tre Demps finished 1-for-10 from the field and missed all five of his 3-point attempts. Olah was Northwestern’s lone player to score in double figures in addition to being the only Wildcats’ player to make more than two field goals.
“Obviously it was a disappointing night for us,” Collins said. “I feel badly for the seniors that we couldn't play better tonight and have a chance to be competitive. It's the same thing the whole year with the offense. Give Penn State credit.”